The 2015 Red Sox need an ace if they are to be taken seriously
The Red Sox broke from convention this past offseason, deciding to build a starting rotation without a definitive ace, despite a rich tradition of elite pitching in Boston and a market saturated with frontline options via fees agency and trade. Ben Cherington chose a different approach, investing in five solid starters rather than one pricey star.
Jon Lester, traded by the Sox in July last year, never received an overwhelming offer from Boston, and instead signed with the Chicago Cubs. James Shields, ace of the pennant-winning Kansas City Royals, was considered too old to be a worthwhile investment for the Sox, and thus wound up in San Diego. And Max Scherzer, the top hurler on the open market, agreed a 7-year, $210 million deal with Washington.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox got to work piecing together a workmanlike – but decidedly unspectacular – rotation of their own. Rick Porcello, an experienced 26-year old righty, arrived from Detroit. Wade Miley, a consistent innings-eater, was acquired from Arizona. And Justin Masterson, an extreme groundball pitcher, returned to Boston on a 1-year, $9.5 million deal. That trio joined holdovers Joe Kelly and Clay Buchholz to form a much-discussed rotation on Yawkey Way.
In theory, Boston's decision to construct such an unconventional starting corps was driven not only by economic efficiency, but also by the prevailing trends of contemporary baseball. In this age of depleted offence and specialised bullpens, the need for long and dominating starts has been somewhat diminished. Accordingly, the Red Sox plan to get five innings of 2-run pitching from their starters every day and hope to subsequently win ballgames with a potent offence and strong late-game bullpen. After all, none of the previous 26 Cy Young Award-winning pitchers led their respective teams to a World Series championship in the same season, and many have come to view the traditional ace as overly expensive.
So far, the plan has had mixed results. Through the first 13 games, the rotation was just as average as people expected, posting a combined 6.22 ERA and a combined 1.412 WHIP. However, in a broader sense, Cherington's logic has worked, with Sox starters averaging 5.26 innings per start and a strong offence – currently ranked in the upper echelon in runs scored – leading the way to victories. Despite possessing no definitive ace, Boston began the year 8-5 and settled in atop the American League East. Most fans are content with that.
However, as the season unfolds, and as we inch closer to the postseason, conventional wisdom dictates the need for a discernible ace becomes more apparent. Personally, I believe every team with serious October aspirations still needs that one warrior, that one defiant horse, that one stopper anchoring the rotation.
Right now, the Red Sox have plenty of guys who will eat innings and string together plenty of outs, but they do not have anybody who will overwhelm or dominate a rival lineup. I know we live in a statistics-crazed era, where any opinion unsubstantiated by numerical proof is immediately considered invalid, but there is still great tangible value to be found in having at least one pitcher who opposing teams hope to avoid when they roll into town. Here in Boston, we have seen the effect of fire-breathing aces such as Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. They were fearsome. They were commanding. They were dependable. The 2015 Red Sox need those qualities.
Ultimately, the true value of an ace is realised in October, when short series of high-pressure baseball separate pretenders from contenders. In 2014, Madison Bumgarner demonstrated the importance of a rotation anchor during the postseason when he compiled a 1.57 ERA over 33.2 adrenaline-fuelled innings to steer San Francisco to another World Series title. Bumgarner was the Fall Classic and NLCS MVP, and singlehandedly transformed an average Giants team into winners. Who, here in 2015, is about to do that for the Red Sox?
In the American League, most teams serious about contending have at least one firm horse heading their respective rotations. Detroit has David Price. Seattle has Felix Hernandez. Even Cleveland has Corey Kluber, the reigning Cy Young Award winner. As of right now, all of teams would have a clear advantage in starting pitching were they to meet the Red Sox in the playoffs. Clay Buchholz, Boston's Opening Day starter, is good, but he simply is not in the same class as the aforementioned masters, which is certainly a worry for the Sox moving forward.
Of course, we should not underestimate the Boston front office, which has showed a penchant for swift and season-altering moves in recent years. With plenty of top quality starters scheduled to hit free agency following this season, there figures to be some excellent arms available as the trade deadline rolls into view. Perhaps Cincinnati will try to recoup some value by trading Johnny Cueto, or the White Sox may elect to move Jeff Samardzija if they find themselves out of the race. Meanwhile, the spectre of Cole Hamels still looms large, with the Sox showing persistent interest. Ultimately, Boston has the high-end prospects needed to net any ace who becomes available, and quite frankly, they will need to strike a deal at some point.
During the offseason, Ben Cherington took a huge gamble. He settled for an average starting rotation while pumping funds into resuscitating the Red Sox offence. Early on, his plan seems to be paying off, with the Sox staying in games long enough for their potent lineup to deliver victory. But as the season unfurls and playoffs round into view, Boston will need to add an elite arm, or else its October ambitions will not be taken seriously.